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Blog

Filtering by Category: Literature

Anne with an E

Jayne English

“I’m gonna tell you plain, you’re doing a mighty foolish thing, a risky thing, that’s what.”
      — Rachel Lynde

I deliberated for a few weeks about watching Anne with an E. I’m usually disappointed with the 2-dimensional feel of most adaptations. I enjoyed reading the series so much, I was reluctant to watch something that would spoil the essence of Anne that had me pulling each book off the bookstore shelves as eagerly as any eleven-year old with a story crush. Only, I was in my 30’s when I first read the series. Anne’s enthusiasm was irresistible. Adaptations miss the essence of character that books uniquely develop. What stayed with me, years after I read the books, was Anne’s irrepressible love of life. I wasn’t prepared to have those memories forever ruined. But on the off chance that I’d find something more, I plunged in.

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The Shape of Humility

Jean Hoefling

I know well enough that very few people who are supposedly interested in writing are interested in writing well.
Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners

A few years ago, in the interest of honing a short story that I considered decent (which it turned out not to be, particularly), I attended the legendary Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico—that annual summer gathering at St. John’s College of Christian (or not) poets, painters, musicians, and budding screenplay and fiction writers. That year, prolific novelist Bret Lott facilitated the fiction workshop. Every morning before our class began the round of shock therapy euphemistically called “peer critique,” Professor Lott offered short, helpful lectures on writing while we all drank coffee and breathed in the signature Santa Fe scent of burnt brick and piñon that wafted through the open windows of our classroom. All his teaching was good, but these years later I don’t remember much of what the good professor said.  

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Reading as Moral Formation

Stephen Lamb

I am sometimes embarrassed when I remember how important a certain book was to me five years ago. Amplify that embarrassment exponentially for each year closer to high school. The embarrassment comes partly, I think, from what the earth-shattering import I gave to this or that book says about what I had read up to that point in my life. 

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Poetry Out Loud

William Coleman

"I stood upon the edge where the mist ascended" . . . "Light! more light!" . . . "I've lived the parting hour to see / Of one I would have died to save." . . . "I found the arrow, still unbroke." ...

I watched and heard my students say these lines, and so many more, one day in January. They were embodying poems they'd learned by heart, each one saying two: one of 25 lines or fewer, and one composed before the twentieth century was. We were following the rules of Poetry Out Loud, the national poetry recitation contest sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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T.S. Eliot: A Thought on Liberalism

Joy and Matthew Steem

The trouble with T.S Eliot’s reputation, many writers have said, is that his early work has been explored (think “The Wasteland”) while the later has been ignored. This has changed somewhat lately, but it’s still fairly pervasive. For example, in many poetry anthologies – the place where students get their first taste of poetry – it will be the younger, non-believing rather nihilistic Eliot they are introduced to. It’s not too often that something like the Four Quartets will be provided. Nope, the concluding sentiment received will be, likely, from “The Hollow Men”:

         “This is the way the world ends (x3)
         Not with a bang but a whimper.”

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The Grace of Graham Greene

Joy and Matthew Steem

For a long while—years—an exceedingly good friend pestered me to read Graham Greene, specifically The Power and The Glory. When I finally made the right choice, I had a sense of loss—grief that had I read the work earlier, I may have been a more replete and insightful person. I now personally know why he has been called one of the better writers (and a Catholic to boot) of the century.

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A Poet in Pursuit of Freedom

Jessica Brown

George Moses Horton wrote poems, and for a very long time he attempted to sell these poems to purchase his freedom from slavery.

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In Service of a Single Word

William Coleman

In the winter of 1959, Richard Wilbur was told that a word in a poem he'd submitted to The New Yorker had to be changed. It possessed the "wrong connotation" for the magazine, the interim poetry editor wrote, relaying the wishes of editors higher up on the masthead, including, presumably, William Shawn himself.

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Breathing a Vein

Jean Hoefling

Fast advice to new writers who bemoan the intensity of the discipline sometimes includes throwing around that Hemingway quote about the typewriter and the bleeding. It’s pithy and ironic and makes the more seasoned writer quoting it sound like they know something Hemingway did. It also inspires hilarious imagery: to each writer, his or her own brand of macabre.

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Cheez Whiz and The Inklings

Joy and Matthew Steem

It’s been said that Cheez Whiz is one molecule away from being plastic, and I actually don’t like it at all, but the song is catchy right?

Cheez Whiz has nothing to do with the Inklings because I am certain none of them would have deigned to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

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A Guide to Great Arms

Chrysta Brown

Umberto Boccioni, Synthesis of Human Dynamism, 1913, destroyed. My sister and I used to have picnics in our family garden and study Greek Mythology.

Well, not exactly.

What we actually did was sit on a blanket with flowers on it—our mother referred to this as the garden—and watch Xena and Hercules. We probably ate pizza on paper plates. Come to think of it, the paper plate thing may have only happened once and, for reasons I cannot even begin to explain, I just remember that one time quite fondly.

About a month ago, I relived this memory with my fiancé. We sat on the couch, ate pizza (on real plates) drank wine, and prepared to binge watch Hercules. “This is not good,” I said. It wasn’t bad in a way that can be excused by 90’s nostalgia, but it is a poorly designed, written, and acted production. As we watched Kevin Sorbo brood and throw things, I struggled to remember what exactly I, as either a child or adult, liked about this show. I like drawing doodles of cyclops. I like loose, flowing dresses that resemble bed sheets. I have an obsession with deltoids, which I believe is a direct result of a vested Kevin Sorbo and those upper arm bangles that every female character wore. “Nope,” Sean shook his head. “It’s not great. Not at all.”  

The deltoid is one of the muscles in the shoulder. It is used for lifting, hugging, holding, and hanging on. While weight and resistance are great ways to strengthen and sculpt the muscle, there are three main ways to strengthen and sculpt your deltoids without external assistance. The first is abduction. It is the act of moving something away from the center of your body. The second way is a yoga pose known as a downward dog. In addition to forcing the hands and shoulders to endure the weight of an inversion, this pose increases blood circulation and detoxifies the body. It is like the movement version of a juice cleanse. The final way to get Herculean arms is pushups, forcing yourself to get off of the floor, to fall, and to push yourself back up again.

For a muscle to strengthen it has to tear. The tears are small. They are not without pain or discomfort. Science says that when, or if, the muscle repairs, the new muscle is stronger. Tears are real. They hurt. Eyes tear. Muscles tear. Communities tear. We can only hope that when healing has taken place, it has done so with enough precision and strength to make us forget how bad everything was before.

To Be Made Complete

William Coleman

Lady Macbeth - Gabriel von Max The Latin word condere means to found, to make, or to bury. It also means to strike such that the instrument is plunged in what is struck. Virgil sets the multivalent word to work at once in his Aeneid, tuning it to sing the praise of Roman making. ("tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem" ; "So great a task it was to found the Roman race.")

But when we meet the word again at story's end, there is a shudder, as a circuit we did not know was being fashioned, line by line, is made complete: Aeneus sinks his blade into the side of Turnus, an issuing of violence that in turn gives birth to Rome. Destined rage, destined mercilessness, destined empire: we're made to think again of all that came before, and all that came of that.

My wife, figuring another circuit, describes such linguistic pairs as knots at the ends of the tailor's thread. One allows the stitch to happen, the other's made to stem the seam that's stitched. The kindred knots, sharing a nature, are separated by the union they helped to fashion.

Thus in Denmark, Grendel slaughters thirty men, and the hero, stepping ashore two hundred and fifty lines later, is said to have "the strength of thirty" in his grip.

Thus the troubled prince of Denmark calls his love "nymph"--nymph, the water-bride; nymph, the water-called--and in the span of an act, Ophelia's drawn into the brook.

Thus Macbeth, drenched in guilt, turns to his wife:

It will have blood; they say, blood will have blood: Stones have been known to move and trees to speak; Augurs and understood relations have By magot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth The secret'st man of blood. What is the night?

And his wife responds,

Almost at odds with morning, which is which.

Shakespeare sets her line at the play's dead center (act III, scene iv): midnight in the drama's time, midnight in the staged running of that time, midnight in the realm of the usurping king's soul. How apt, then, how terrifyingly apt, that Lady Macbeth unconsciously (that is to say, homophonically) reminds him (and herself?) of the force that set the dark in motion ("which is which"). The stitch.

What's more, because the work at hand cannot exist without us, the circuit's made complete within us. The stitch's loop depends on our awareness. We feel a sudden tautness ripple the warp and weft of our material. Cinched more tightly to the act of creation, we feel an intimation of immortality; we feel the final meaning of condere: completion.

Cue the Fairy Tale Characters, Please

Jill Reid

jill-reid_fairy-tales-nov-16-post My sister once bought a Dollar Store Snow White wig for my daughter. Three-year-old Ellie used to drag it behind her the way Linus clung to his blue blanket. She donned it at breakfast and slept in it at naptime. Day after day, wigged and rapt, she caressed the cheap dark locks with sticky toddler paws as Disney’s Snow White’s soprano pierced the thin walls of our apartment.

Symbols are powerful. Even sticky old wigs have their magic, and in retrospect, the season of the Snow White wig was thick with both fairy tale and curse. Disney’s Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White played on loops on the living room TV, their Technicolor endings a crescendo of orchestra music, ball gowns, and satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, I re-read passages for literature classes in which the dragon killed Beowulf, and Othello murdered Desdemona. Mr. Hyde overcame Dr. Jekyll, and poor tentative Alfred J. Prufrock measured out his “life in coffee spoons.”  

Those stories, in contrast to the fairy tale, were as fragmented as the world my child and I lived within. During the season of the Snow White wig, my own life experience with single parenthood, toddler potty training, and exhaustion dug in its heels against the “simplicity” of fairy tales. Really, how do you embrace the enchantment in Snow White’s story, when what you have read and lived and survived suggests that in your own story, should you ever bite into one of life’s poison apple, you will have to drive your own poisoned self to the ER?

That was also the season when, in the middle of a week sopping with the weariness of cynicism, my notebook became a revelation. I sat at my desk writing the word “Loss” over and over without even realizing the path my pen was taking. And next to that, I jotted down a statement by C.S. Lewis that, prior to that moment, had existed only as a lovely sentiment I intended to quote to students.

“Loss. Loss. Loss,” my notebook read. "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” C.S. Lewis told me. And just like that, after months of rolling my eyes at Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, I saw the wisdom in Ellie’s beautiful, tangled Snow White wig. “What,” I could almost hear Snow White whisper, “has ever been easy about overcoming a curse?”

Perhaps when C.S. Lewis talks about growing old enough to read fairytales again, he alludes to the slowly re-gained wisdom in believing in the possibility of the cursed truly overcoming their curses  - even on this side of heaven. Rather than a curse that divvies itself out over a lifetime in wrinkles and mortgage payments, the fairy tale offers one pure cup of concentrated curse, potent as Snow White’s apple, for us to swallow and overcome all at once. There is a special kind of relief in knowing exactly what curse you’re up against , how to defeat it, and that it can be defeated at all.

Of fairy tales, Neil Gaiman, in a paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s longer explanation, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Each day, the dragons gather.  They show up in the latest news cycle.  They loom when I sit down to pay the bills or comfort a sick child.  In class, I spend hours discussing all the gray spaces where the heroes fall to dragons or where, sometimes, there are no heroes at all. But, as I grow older, I believe more and more that in a world full of dragons, there is a special wisdom in embracing the fairy tale, matted and familiar as a Snow White wig, as a place of empowerment, where we can, at least for the breadth of a story, watch the dragons fall.

Surprise

Howard Schaap

night-dark-blur-blurredIt usually doesn’t happen until about mid-journey.  Up till that point, the sun has been up, and you can see where you’re going.  You’ve never been in this kind of car before, and you like some of the buttons and the scenery outside your window—old barns or even the edges of industrial wastes—and just the experience of being in the passenger seat and wondering where it is you’re going. The driver has a hypnotic voice and quirks that are fascinating; a tattoo runs down the side of his neck—“R-A-” something.

Then, the fog or night closes down around you and the quirky driver puts on his blinker, and you think, now this is going to get good.  Then, in a few moments there goes the blinker again.  Pretty soon it’s all blinkers and turns and you’re getting carsick and thinking, “Where can this be going?”  Now you know that you’re just turning to turn, the driver has no idea where he’s going but is having a ball and assumes you are too simply because you’re with him and he’s a master driver.  

Finally, you pull into a gas station that only sells bad coffee and outdated gum. “We’re here,” the driver announces, blowing a kazoo, “wasn’t that amazing?” He scratches his neck and you realize the tattoo stops right there, that the A of the R-A- isn’t even finished, that it’s part of the outfit and probably only temporary.  

There’s something about “writing as journey through the fog” that drives me crazy.  Yes, you can make the whole journey just by what you see in the headlights, but you can also drive pointlessly to nowhere.

This may simply be fiction envy on my part.  I’m told that often good characters are the ones who take the wheel.  Bless all the fiction writers who give up the keys like this. I myself literally cannot do it.

In writing memoir, the unknown functions a bit differently.  You know where you’re going.  You even know all—or almost all—the different roads you might take to get there.  This takes things like suspense almost completely out of play, and it means you depend on having a clear day, because in writing memoir you don’t focus on the headlights—you look out the side window and what you see there had better be crystalline.  It might be warped and full of grotesqueries, but they have to be clear grotesqueries.  

Perhaps a better metaphor for writing memoir is gardening.  Tilling and re-tilling the earth of memoir can feel redundant. Are you really going to go back to the same patch of earth again this spring? But it’s in the tilling you find things.  It’s in the seasoning of earth that new richness emerges: a pepper plant with nuanced flavors springs right from that same old re-tilled patch.

I’d written about my name, Howard, dozens of times; then, in a writing exercise I stumbled on the word “anachronism.”  Recently, the name became a millstone that drags me back through the waters of time to the big white sink and drain board where my mother is thawing meat.  That sink screams 1950s to me, which is the decade when my dad’s brother died in Korea, bequeathing me the name.  

Not much perhaps, just some soil where pepper seeds may or may not take.  

But for me, this soil of discovery is the delight of writing memoir, Frost’s hallmark, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

Felix Culpa

Jean Hoefling

apple-on-stump-with-flowersNothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.      – Robert Frost

It was the first grown-up poem I burned to memory. I was seventeen, and Mr. Hunt's poetry class was a lifeline in that unhappy season of affected hippie clothes, a tumultuous first romance I still believe probably killed me, and a month of March that gives new meaning to the word bleak.

The passionate Mr. Hunt read poetry aloud to us—all his favorite sonnets by Donne and Shakespeare, and lots of Plath, Hopkins, Dickinson, and many others. O for a muse of fire… Glory to God for dappled things…I died for beauty…That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me… I’d watch our teacher’s mouth form each word and phrase, then place those exquisite nuggets of expression into his students’ hearing as though they were sacraments intended to bless and heal. And somehow, they did. There seems to be a given about most good poetry: it is true. Even if it’s harsh or vulgar, it’s still true. And where there is truth, there is power and mystery and healing. “The truth shall set you free.” Poetry’s aching bluntness gives us something to hang onto as we struggle to grow up over the course of a lifetime.

Maybe that’s why I took Frost’s haunting poem about life’s transience so seriously. I memorized it for life within minutes of my first reading. I lived inside that poem for years while I healed from the sinking Edens of my junior year of high school—the dawns that had too quickly turned to garish midday and the golden things I did not have the maturity to manage before they subsided forever. “Nothing Gold” gave me hope by expressing a sorrowful reality in a gracious and beautiful way.

Many years later, I think of this poem in light of the western theological term, felix culpa: happy fault. In felix culpa is the paradox of Eden’s calamitous fall as a necessary and blessed catharsis for the appearing of the One who, in Christian eschatology, will one day restore lost Eden; who is himself that paradise. Frost’s job as a poet was to point out the heartbreaking fact that in this world, nothing gold can stay. Faith takes it one step further: In the next world, gold will never pass away.